Siempre con las Pibas By Noelle McManus
I wasn’t very graceful, dropping my backpack onto our building’s front steps and untying the green bandanna from its left strap like my life depended on it. Passersby slowed to see what I was up to. I stuffed the bandanna inside my bag and zipped it up; clearly, I was hiding something. My host mother, unaware of what I had stashed away, greeted me when I arrived at the door to our apartment. For a bit, I sat by her side in the living room, while the television blared on in front of us. “PROTESTS FILL THE STREETS,” newscasts declared in bold letters. “ABORTION DEBATE RAGES ON.”
The green bandannas first caught my eye early in my semester abroad in Buenos Aires. I’d been hearing about them on social media since August of 2018, when the Argentine Senate rejected a proposal for the legalization of abortion. Where pale blue represents pro-life sentiment, green represents pro-choice. As soon as I had the opportunity, I rushed to a street vendor selling bandannas corresponding with Argentina’s remarkably color-coded social justice movements—in addition to the pale blue and green, orange represents support for the separation of church and state, and purple represents women’s rights—and bought myself a green one. I dreamed of displaying it proudly like the Argentines my age.
“What sort of feminist am I?”
The explosion of feminism that resulted from the abortion proposal—and, later, the rejection—was loud, angry, unapologetic. Girls began doing everything they could to push against the age-old Latin American concept of marianismo, the idea that women should be as placid and innocent as the Virgin Mary. They cut their hair themselves in wild, choppy bangs. They filled their skin with tattoos and wore shorts out in public. They kicked, they screamed, they sprayed graffiti on churches and government offices. On the way home from buying my bandanna, I passed a brick wall painted with the words, “MUERTE A LOS MACHISTAS,” and a footnote below: “No es una metáfora.” The bandanna newly tied to my backpack, I stared in muted awe, aware that I was a mere witness to something much, much bigger than I was.
“People don’t know what feminism is,” a porteña friend told me early in the term, fingering the frayed ends of her bandanna. “They’re scared of it. They think we’re all crazy.” I noted the furrow of her brows, the tired frustration in her voice, and thought to myself, I’m so lucky that my country is different.
I was still in Argentina when Governor Kay Ivey signed Alabama’s Human Life Protection Act. When Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Ohio rushed into line behind her. States were dropping like flies, led by ringleaders who believed that “all life has value” besides women’s, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was shocked into quiet, this time for the horrors of a people—my people—who, in my ignorance, I thought were past this stage.
Though I had seen it growing up in a Catholic Long Island suburb and spending my high school years in an institution that, as part of its official curriculum, compared today’s abortion “body count” to that of the Holocaust, I’d always assumed that the rest of the country was different. That our past decisions would never be overturned. But, as more and more state governments proposed heartbeat bills and jailtime for doctors, I began to rethink what it meant to identify with a movement. If we had green bandannas in the US, would I now be afraid to display one?
The radical fervor of Argentina’s feminists is something I fear US feminists may have lost a bit, as we “grow out of” our rage-filled past. In Argentina, I glimpsed a reality where being sent to prison for choosing an abortion is a real fear. We can discuss and debate all we like. But there’s a sharp distinction between saying what you stand for and sticking it on your forehead, putting yourself in the way of critique by any person—friend or stranger—that you come across. Some days, I felt vulnerable and self-conscious with my bandanna on my backpack, trying to keep myself resolute against the side-eyes, the people scooching away from me on the bus. I visited the Casa Rosada, the office of conservative President Mauricio Macri, and, fearing judgment, hid the bandanna away. What sort of feminist am I? I thought one afternoon. I had just opened a book in a local bookstore to find that the author included “feminist” in her bio—despite the novel itself having little to do with feminism.
In an instant, I understood more fully why the Women’s Review of Books has to exist—something I thought I’d comprehended before. To write “feminist” beside one’s name and publish it goes beyond simply having a belief and sharing it. Once it’s out in the world, you can’t take it away; people will think of you what they will. I walked home that day, the bandanna a flash of green on my form, and was reminded of a poster I’d seen stuck to a wall just by the Metropolitan Cathedral. It was green, filled with drawn faces of angry, shouting women, and marked by the words, “SIEMPRE CON LAS PIBAS”— roughly meaning, “Always with the girls.” I hadn’t been doing all I could. There were people I needed to stand beside. Who I needed to stand beside me, bravely, loudly, as ferociously as a feminist in the streets of Buenos Aires.
When I opened the apartment door, my host mother asked me about school. I answered. Our conversation progressed for a minute or so before her eyes drifted down and she noticed my bandanna, dangling over my left shoulder.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “How wonderful!” The looming shadow of the world outside diminished. We had signaled we were safe with each other.
Noelle McManus is a junior linguistics and Spanish major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and editorial assistant for the Women’s Review of Books.
By Donna Freitas
Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
I remember the moment my father told me that the Police song “Every Breath You Take” was a song from the point of view of a stalker. Until then, I, like most pre-teen Top 40 listeners of the 1980s, thought of it as a love song. How dreamy to be loved so intensely by someone. “Every breath you take, every move you make … I’ll be watching you.”
I also remember being sixteen and receiving a pair of earrings from an older male teacher, after a choral concert one evening, politely saying thank you and walking off thinking, “that was weird.” And then, two years after I’d left that school, receiving a call from that same teacher congratulating me on my eighteenth birthday and suggesting we get together some time. That time I said, “okay, sure, maybe sometime,” hung up quickly and thought, “Ew!” I was embarrassed and never mentioned it to anyone until years later. I was riddled with questions about our interactions. Did he get a kick out of me because I was an enthusiastic student? Or was he being creepy because I wore short skirts and ripped nylons? It felt dangerous to even name it. He was a teacher and trusted and liked, and I was just a teenager.
He died recently and there were tributes to him on Facebook by my old classmates. He had been a great teacher, it was true. Who was I to ruin that for anyone? And after all, all he did was give a gift and make a call. And yet. And yet.
As an adult I know, unequivocally, that he was being creepy. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I’d venture that if you ask every woman and girl you know, the majority will have some version of the story, and sadly, some far worse.
In Consent, author and scholar Donna Freitas tells the story of being stalked by Father L., a priest and professor at the Catholic university she attended for her PhD in Religious Studies. As a writer and lecturer on sexuality, consent, and Title IX on college campuses, she applies her research skills to her own long-undisclosed story and is unflinching in her examination. It is a harrowing and brilliant personal exploration of consent, shame, and power. It tells a clear story about how quickly a very smart young woman can lose her bearings as her power, and her voice, are taken from her.
Freitas writes beautifully; she is both a probing academic and a poet. In quick strokes, she evokes the world of close-knit Catholic family and community in Rhode Island, of undergraduate life at Georgetown University, the joys of being an academic, and, finally, the devastation of not trusting one’s mind anymore, and losing hold of future dreams.
Freitas leaves a path of breadcrumbs. We meet the young, passionate Donna in Catholic school, and she has discovered her secret power: reading and learning. She’s the self-described teacher’s pet who reads so voraciously that she requires her own one-person AP English class in high school with a generous and supportive nun. The set-up is critical to fully comprehend the break in trust between a teacher and student that ensues.
While not a story of Catholicism per se, Freitas’s own Catholic upbringing and the fact that her stalker is a teacher and a Catholic priest are themselves critical pieces of the story. From birth, Freitas’s experience of the church is nothing but positive. It is the bedrock of her Italian and Portuguese immigrant community in Rhode Island. It is the nuns at school and the Jesuits at Georgetown University who encourage her along in her path. Even as she decides early on that she may not share the faith of her parents, her nostalgia for ritual and gratitude for the way the Catholic community in her town supports her mother during an illness make it a virtuous institution. Academia becomes her church, and the church remains her hearth. The structure of the church alone and the myth of the infallibility of priests— these events unfold just before the church’s abuse scandal—lay at the heart of how Father L. gains the access he does. Not all stalkers are Catholic priests. But, several times, the author wonders if Father L.’s early entry to the priesthood stunted his emotional growth to such an extent that he doesn’t possess the maturity to understand his own desire and that it is not reciprocated.
The title is important. The book is called Consent, not, say, Stalked, or My Creepy Teacher. Consent is the nagging question that runs through the book—when and how or whether consent took place. Freitas does not owe anyone an examination of her role, but she probes it, pokes it, turns it over in her hand, and exposes it to light in a way that is a great gift to her reader.
The examination of the experience yields a clear enough picture of a stalker on the one hand, but we see Freitas’s anguish at every opening she perceives herself as having created. It is painful to witness. And important and generous, even, of her to do. She levels a steady gaze at a woman’s desire to be seen. We see a girl in short skirt and tall boots, aware of her looks and enjoying them, a self-described “kissing bandit” along with being the aforementioned eager student. Her favorite mentors become those teachers who relish that wonderful student, encourage her with more books that pertain to her boundless curiosity. Father L. starts out as one of those mentors, and she says, “I was flattered, too … his attention made me feel special, though not special in a way that a boy I liked might make me feel special. Special as an aspiring PhD, as an aspiring professor, like himself.”
Are female students complicit because they want to be liked by the men they like, because they wear short skirts and high heel boots? A major idea embedded at the core of questioning consent is complicity and, from that, shame. Entire passages find Donna questioning her own role in the unwanted attentions. Is it harassment if it’s just friendly? Did she elicit and encourage it? Why her and not that other student? And of course, from those questions and uncertainties, the shame arises and settles itself into every crevice and wreaks havoc.
Freitas talks about a “half-assed non-consent,” familiar to most women as what we do to maintain the peace. The threat of losing everything, of disturbing lives, and worlds, is always present when we weigh how to say no. It’s the balancing act (or conflict) of holding a hand up to keep someone at bay and smiling at the same time.
Freitas’s pacing is akin to a well-plotted thriller. Slowly but surely things add up. On their own, each of Father L.’s infractions are hard to pin down or call stalking. Which lends more unease. The hairs on the back of one’s neck prick up as one realizes, along with Freitas, how slippery the mudslide has become. We see a young woman wondering whether she is indeed being stalked, or whether she’s rejecting a great teacher and being difficult and ungrateful. The harassment has an insidiousness to it, almost like a vapor that winds itself in and around and obscures clear vision, and ultimately enters the bloodstream.
Harassers and abusers make the objects of their interest question their own intuition and sense of danger. Every woman has it. And needs it. Walking home alone after dark; sitting on a train and knowing that it’s time to move by the slightest offgesture or gaze; when compliments veer ever so slightly into something hard to pinpoint, but decidedly not okay. Freitas the grad student does know when things start to feel not right. But she sees no path then, early on, to say why exactly. Any number of the interactions would be perceived as harmless, the sign of a great professor taking interest in a passionate student. What feels so common-sense matter-of-fact to the reader, looking at the story as a whole, is in fact nothing like that to the student in the crosshairs. Girls and women must often ask themselves: “Ddid that just happen? Am I taking it to mean something it’s not?”
By now we have reached peak use of the word gaslighting (from the title of a 1938 play about a man who manipulates the lighting in his house to convince his wife she is losing her mind), but here it is the most apt descriptor; Freitas writes, “he … was sneaky and convoluted and just indirect enough to leave me doubtful, to make me question my instincts, my judgment, my intuition….”
One of the greatest passages of the book is also the most heartbreaking. After months of calls, letters, and lurking, Father L. brings Donna a pear. By now, the bright, passionate student in highheeled boots has been replaced by a furtive, exhausted, disheveled young woman. She leaves the pear on her kitchen countertop and is reduced to a sort of Nancy Drew of theology as she wonders if the slowly rotting pear is an intentional allusion to the sins of Saint Augustine or is simply a pear from a teacher. Throughout the book young Freitas is trapped, trying to close a door ever so politely while the priest wedges his foot in ever further. Father L. holds all the power. He is important in her university and in her chosen field; without his stamp of approval and letters of introduction, her career will suffer.
The ways in which the university fails Freitas when she turns to it for help are maddening. In describing the damage done to women when they sign nondisclosure or settlement deals with universities, she writes chillingly about the agreements; “I cut out my tongue in the university’s office of human resources … There are file cabinets of the bloody tongues of women … all of them taken from us by people in business-casual attire, in suits and sensible skirts.”
In spite of her experience, as both a passionate student and teacher Freitas is quick to defend the sanctity of a bond between teacher and student, and it only underscores how tragic it is when people like Father L. and his brethren violate the pact. Freitas asks herself repeatedly what she would counsel a student in her shoes and knows that she would advocate for her, and yet she struggles to apply the same empathy and support for herself. The writing of this book feels like an exorcism of sorts of that residual shame. To expose it to the sunlight, as they say, and kill the germs. The book is important beyond that though. It walks us through why our intuition is worth its weight in gold. And walks us through the complexity of consent, of power dynamics, and of what shame can do to even the brightest. In the end, Freitas comes to her conclusion with humility and honesty. She hasn’t conquered every demon left behind by the experience, but there is a sense of release, and, critically, a voice returned.
Kira von Eichel is a writer based in Brooklyn. She reviewed the novel Please Read this Leaflet Carefully for Women’s Review of Books in May/June 2019.
The Promise By Silvina Ocampo
Forgotten Journey By Silvina Ocampo
Reviewed by Ana Castillo
Forgotten Journey and The Promise by late Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo are cornucopias, outpourings of words with the same concision we ascribe to nature. Descriptions pour forth not like water but sap, ensuring the reader will pause and savor, not just in a portrait but every paragraph, each word. Sunsets leave “dirty fruit stains in the sky.” A girlfriend’s tenderness is “the bed you sleep in when you’re tired.” And pillows are “white seashells through which you [can] hear the sound of the sea at night…” Both slender volumes are dense with metaphor, reminding the reader that the great gift of literature is to trigger our imaginations, bringing us into the writer’s world—even if it is a world that exists only in her own mind. In this case, it is likely equal parts observation, memoir, and made-up stuff, but above all, the skill of a born poet.
There is ample material in the pages to ground us sensorially—succulent Cling peaches in summer, the sight of rotting meat as a potential charity to gypsy women (the fortune telling women in long skirts and hoop earring who still roam plazas in Argentina). There are the seduction and revulsion produced by the combined smells of perfumes and chemicals filling a beauty parlor where women got perms or a doctor ’s home office, crowded with bulky furniture he inherited with the house from his mother. In a single vignette we are given vivid scenes of daily life decades ago, as with teens dancing to rock and roll on a phonograph in the country and who later catch a taxi carriage.
Descriptions of animals are rendered such as to consider them characters—in the circus, at the zoo, on abandoned haciendas, and as pets. Often, they are the victims of the cruelty bestowed upon them by inferior humans. Children, too, give and receive pleasure and pain often without their awareness. In The Promise, a character reflects, “for every small dose of happiness they give us, we have to swallow the bitterness in the entire world.”
In the story Esperanza in Flores, Esperanza, a spinster boarder, is enthralled by Florián, a beautiful boy who lives in the house and must go out to beg. He’ll cross his eyes to gain more pity from strangers, but the writer tells us he’d get more when not marring his perfect gaze. Ocampo’s relentless metaphors cause us to catch our breath. “Sleep placed its holy hands over Florián’s eyes,” she tells us, and we are reminded in that moment there remains grace on our planet.
The animals are limited for their inability to be independent and to speak, but children may be precocious while at the mercy of anyone who’ll take them in, anxious about the forthcoming punishment that may lie behind gifts of toys.
Although they are usually not traditional stories, replete with conventions taught today to aspiring creatives, in both texts, Ocampo’s short fiction skills are showcased. Don’t look for arcs, and reserve judgment of their absence. It is a choice made by the writer, not an oversight. Yet, occasionally, complete stories arise. For example, “The Backwater,” a vignette in Forgotten Journey, is about a caretaker who takes his young family to tend a summer home for an intergenerational family. Upon arrival, they are delighted by his adorable little girl whom he carries when stepping out to greet them and who looked more like “a tiny monkey dressed in red.” Each summer, over the years, the girl and her sister continue to charm the family when they descend upon the summer home. Eventually, the marked disparities between their classes rear an ugly head. The owners stop coming to the summer house. Either the city is preferred or the grown kids have lost interest in the country, with its rural detachments from their exciting lives. The caretaker’s daughters stop receiving hand-medowns and soon, they too, flee, only to meet the fate awaiting their status in society.
The Promise—a novel about flashbacks a young woman experiences while drowning in the ocean—was promised to her readership for a long time, while the writer continued to age and suffer from illness until her death at ninety, though was most likely unfinished. Like Scheherazade, Ocampo kept herself alive refining her written stories. At one hundred fifty-two pages, the novella was her longest work. Even so, length is of less importance here. Like ceramic miniatures, each vignette is marvelously crafted. Courtships and dark marriages make cameo appearances, as do modern young women who contemplate taking a lover or have orgasms while drowning in the sea. Then, exhausted and destined to die in the ocean, she (Ocampo as herself or the narrator) writes, “Face up, I am by own bed.”
In the novella, among the few characters that is brought back is Leandro. The young man becomes a physician, and, in his melancholy personal life, he desperately hopes for true love. The narrator is his confidante, and, perhaps unbeknownst to Leandro, also in love with him. In her own words, he is her obsession. “It was as if he were several men,” the narrator tells us as a disembodied character.
It is also possible that the author herself was writing a memoir in a veiled context. The narrator is a young woman who has fallen off a ship without anyone noticing. She is going to drown. Meanwhile, she recollects people she encountered throughout her life. Upon this novelistic scaffolding, Ocampo delivers fully fleshed lives, many of which make brief appearances. We don’t need more, however. She delivers backstory with a few brushstrokes. In the way Andrew Wyeth gave us Christina’s World, all the yearnings contained in a single human and made obvious to the naked eye in the painting appear in each character. Due to a genetic disease, the subject of Wyeth’s masterpiece was crawling across the field. It is also the case with Ocampo’s cast. “Children’s dreams, rise like a white night gown.” A suffering woman falls on her knees like “two wounded hearts.” Humans and the natural world are arresting with depth and yet, even if in the most obscure way, still tragic.
Such images are the grist for the mill of the poet, surrealist, and writer influenced by the prevalence of existentialism, spiritualism, and unconventional structures—all popular beliefs and styles in the late nineteenth century through to the era of the Latin American Boom. In the hands of this masterful poet, short fiction writer, and artist, they are rich, literary droplets designed to reach the soul.
The Promise, the only novel known to be attempted by Ocampo, over which she worked for more than twenty-five years and was published posthumously from a file left on her desk, complies with her belief that fiction required no plot and no endings. Suitably, the novella stops with, “The ears of the tree continue to wait for her… but the man keeps waiting for her in the ears of the tree, as neither the Indian nor the beloved will return.” The pacará, or “elephant ear tree,” appears to absorb the abandoned lover through some form of osmosis. Similarly, we may approach the translated editions. Neither may we worry about caution or surrender in Forgotten Journey. Ocampo has done all the work.
In an interview published in 1978, Ocampo was asked about her ongoing work-in-progress—at that time still untitled. “Something is making this woman talk on and on,” she reports. In the end, what she left us in The Promise was not an unwieldy, diarrheic project, but—to use her own word— “phantasmagorical.” It is a gem.
Ana Castillo is the author of two works of nonfiction (most recently the Lambda award-winning Black Dove: Mamá, Mijo, and Me), seven poetry collections, and eight novels. A teacher and independent scholar, she divides her time between New York City and New Mexico.
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me By Adrienne Brodeur
Reviewed by Cathi Hanauer
At the opening of Adrienne Brodeur’s fastpaced and evocative memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, Brodeur ’s stepfather’s lifelong friend, Ben Souther, bursts like a strapping Santa Claus into the beautiful Cape Cod beachfront home where her mother, Malabar, and her stepfather, Charles, await. Ben holds high a brown paper grocery bag, damp with what turns out to be blood; inside are the dozen squab he’s just slaughtered. “Let’s see what you can do with these, Malabar,” Ben booms, presenting the bag. His longtime wife, Lily—ten years older and a thousand times less demanding and alluring than Malabar—follows quietly behind him, bearing homegrown flowers and watercress; from her angle, she misses the long, appraising, ultimately impressed look her young friend fixes on her— Lily’s—husband.
In no time, Malabar, the “five-star general” of her huge, stunning kitchen, has whipped up a mouthwatering feast, which Ben proclaims “perfection.” Wine flows; the ocean swells in the background; animals alive just hours ago are devoured by ravenous humans; flirting and conversation wax and wane and wax again, everyone wrapped up in their own forms of pleasure. Brodeur, fourteen and tipsy from the wine she’s been served, heads off to the beach, where she experiences her first taste of sex; later, home again and drifting to sleep, she feels newly enlightened to the powers of her body. But in the middle of that night, her mother jars her awake. “Ben Souther just kissed me!” Malabar confesses, joy and excitement oozing off her. She tells her daughter he’s invited her to meet him in New York next week, then says, “I’m going to need your help, sweetie. I need to figure out how to do this.”
With those words, Malabar ensnares Brodeur, at the very time when mother and daughter should be separating, as a thrilled accomplice in her ongoing adultery and deception—a trap and situation that will have a profound impact on the author’s life. Describing the trajectory and roller coaster of her first few decades—years ruled by divorce, instability, and this secret she shared with her deeply narcissistic mother—Brodeur attempts to answer the central questions of love, family, and life: What do we owe our loved ones—parents, children, spouses, even siblings? Do our marital vows compel us to stay together until death do us part—or allow us to leave if the feelings are no longer there? Is love something that simply happens to us, or something we can, or should, try to control? Which is “right”: to be true to our partners, or true to ourselves? At what point are we responsible for our own moral failings, even if those failings are encouraged by our parents?
Writing this from the safe distance of her fifties, stepfather Charles now dead and mother Malabar in her eighties and suffering from dementia, Brodeur moves forward from that pivotal night into Part Two of her young life, in which she revels in her role of best friend and favored child to her headstrong, boundary-less, morally bankrupt mother. Born on the birthday of Malabar’s first child, a boy who died tragically at age 2, Brodeur suddenly has a way to not only earn legitimacy in her mother’s eyes, but also to supersede her living older brother, Peter. Whether she’s helping scheme ways for Ben and Malabar to be together, skipping days of college to help her mother weasel out of their affair being discovered, or (yes) actually marrying Ben’s son, Jack, in her early twenties, and even then keeping her knowledge of their parents’ affair from him, Brodeur allows her mother’s presence, needs, and desires to dictate and supplant her own (“My mother’s broken heart felt like my own,” she writes), becoming, unsurprisingly, as morally questionable as her mother. “In our family,” she tells us, “being right trumped being truthful.” It’s not until Part Three of her life—with help from her father’s third wife, Margot, and the piles of books she lovingly pushes on the author—that Brodeur starts to see clearly what’s been going on and attempts to extricate from it and come into herself. But not before sinking dangerously close to rock bottom.
Brodeur’s writing is passionate, sensual, and often deceptively simple. She culls gorgeous details of Cape Cod, with its screeching terns and “bluefish blitz[es],” its low-tide displays of “horseshoe crabs coupling” and “moon snails pushing plow-like across the sandy bottom” of the bay, to make the setting as much a character in this drama as the humans inhabiting it. Food also plays a central role, with Ben’s and Malabar’s gleeful partnered capturing, cooking, and devouring of sea, land, and sky creatures serving as the perfect metaphor for their destruction and disregard of their human families. Whether coating live minnows with seasoned flour before tossing “still wriggling” fistfuls of them into a sizzling hot pan or trapping angry lobsters in inches of boiling water to steam them (“Ben slapped down the top with a bang and held it in place as the lobsters thrashed for a minute before the steam quieted them permanently”), as presented by Brodeur, the two blaze along wreaking havoc on those they once loved and leaving destruction in their wake; if each shows the occasional moment of guilt, these moments, particularly in contrast to the author’s deep soul-searching about her own role in all this, are fleeting before it’s back to the business of meeting their own voracious desires and appetites.
Occasionally Brodeur’s omissions, though they kept me turning pages, left me wanting a bit more; toward the end, she refers almost in passing to her “own checkered history of love affairs and infidelities” as well as to her habit of (self) cutting, and while a line about the latter was enough in a memoir this broad, the former took me a bit by surprise coming so late and minimally. (Wait—what affairs?!) Too, the writing can veer into cliché: someone “stand[ing] outside of time,” “look[ing] mindfully for a new path,” or, the cliché du jour, “not feeling known.” And occasional sentimentality— “milk-drunk babies,” “lanky children … running full tilt across the sand”—stood out like, well, bright plastic beach toys on perfect white sand. But these minor details displeased only because so much of the writing is literary; whether recounting her joy at returning to sordid New York, with its “messy velocity,” after years of feeling displaced in sunny San Diego, or describing the insect perfectly trapped within the “cube of amber” on her psychiatrist’s desk (“‘Stupid beetle,’” I thought”), Brodeur shows herself a worthy descendant of her family of writers, including a father who worked for The New Yorker.
Though this memoir is being billed first as a mother-daughter story, what interests me most is how it depicts both the strengths and the frailty of marriage. Ben and Lily stay together even though he’s mostly deaf and she, due to earlier illness, literally barely has a voice. Yet how “together” are they when he’s lying to her and sleeping with someone else? Would she be better off if he left? Would Charles, if Malabar ditched him to be with Ben? That’s something you could ask a million people and get a million different answers—or at least two. Malabar, predictably, felt “not one whit of guilt” about the affair. “‘Here’s how you need to think about it, Rennie,’” she tells Brodeur. “‘Ben and I didn’t mean to fall in love. It just happened. The important thing is that we have chosen to put Charles and Lily first. Neither of us wants to hurt them. You understand that, right?’” She adds that by not divorcing their spouses and instead having this illicit affair, “…Ben and I are acting altruistically here. As are you, sweetie.’” At last, Brodeur writes, “I understood the immensity of my mother and Ben’s sacrifice. The plan was to wait for Lily and Charles to die. It was the narrative they’d settled on. At the time, it struck me as noble and even kind.”
It would take many years and lots of help for Brodeur to develop the backbone and principles her family deprived her of. But in the end, she can still deceive guiltlessly when it’s warranted: Reading from the book to her elderly, only semi-aware mother, Brodeur chooses passages that depict Malabar as “a powerful woman who went after all that she wanted” while “skip[ping] over the parts where she failed me.” It’s a fitting finale; the once indomitable woman who’s spent her life deluding and overpowering those who are weaker is now weak and deceived herself—and on display for the world to judge.
Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels and two anthologies, including The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage and The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, which was an NPR Best Book of 2016. She and her husband started the New York Times “Modern Love” column.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls By Mona Eltahawy
Reviewed by Rachel DeWoskin
What might it look like if women embraced behaviors we’ve been forever warned against, screamed from rafters, stopped agreeing to anything close to correct deportment, were no longer nice, polite, contained, “feminine,” or “civil”? What if we described in frank—even profane—ways exactly what we need, fear, and want changed before we continued to participate in society? Would that look like grabbing power instead of explaining to our young daughters over breakfast what “grab her by the pussy” means, and why someone who takes and gloats about that tack is in charge of the free world? Might such a shift mean defunding militaries and funding public schools? Buying essential food and medical supplies for all children, including feminine hygiene products for poor school girls? Abolishing prisons, borders, and ICE? Allowing for and celebrating mixed-gender and women-led prayer? Megan Rapinoe would get to dance, sing, and revel in her own and her team’s badassery without an army of trolls coming after her in furious force. In China, women wouldn’t be forced to sign employment contracts promising not to get pregnant. Women would demand liberation and attention; we would make our rage collective and productive, turn it consistently outward, never in on ourselves. What if we insisted that the voices, stories, and perspectives of women matter by default, especially those most marginalized, those used to being ignored, attacked, or made invisible by a machine that doles out praise and punishment (the patriarchy): women of color, poor women, trans women? We would welcome immigrants, and, as Representative Ilhan Omar put it at her swearing in, would “send them to Washington.” There would be plaques in places from Bosnia to Brazil to the US, commemorating female victims of violence as well as female heroes.
An imagined world of this sort is on shimmering display in Mona Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, a book at once thoughtful and rageful enough to read like the lovechild of a primal shriek and a dissertation on the state of global women’s rights. Memoir, historical record, and manifesta, the book offers an enraged testimony of injustice and misogyny, as well as a tribute to women fighting both. It is evidence of Eltahawy’s life-long unwillingness to be silent, as well as what her activism has cost, wrought, and produced.
So contemporary it feels almost spoken, Seven Necessary Sins called to my mind an antique counterpoint, the ancient Chinese Biographies of Model Women. Compiled during the Han Dynasty (212-206 AD) by scholar Liu Xiang, Biographies was the first Chinese book devoted entirely to the subject of women. The biographies begin with illustrations of the “correct deportment of mothers,” and work their way from “chaste and obedient” wives and widows to the climactic finale, “biographies of the pernicious and depraved.” I read Biographies in college, and used its shape as an inspiration for a memoir I wrote in my late twenties, about women. Maybe predictably, it was the bad girls I found most interesting, the lessons they offered up most useful. For example, for women to bare our bodies and shout is a terrible curse. For a woman to be “like a man” is a sin almost guaranteed to bring about the sort of plummet from grace we’re used to seeing women endure after daring to attract attention, to rage, lust, or fight. In the “pernicious and depraved” section, a concubine named Mo-Shi has “the heart of a man,” not to mention a sword and cap. Her appropriation of machismo causes the fall of a kingdom. Of course, the lessons we are meant to take as readers (of the don’t-try-this-thing-at-home sort) are often casualties of the dangers of tempt-and-teach literature. Instead of being quietly schooled in how we might be winningly obedient, some readers (including me) may be compelled by disobedient models, finding in their stories permission and inspiration.
Elthaway admires Audre Lorde’s admonition that, “Your silence will not protect you,” and from that seed grows a set of radical chapters on the sins necessary to a revolution designed to dismantle the patriarchy: Anger, Attention, Profanity, Ambition, Power, Violence, and Lust. The book is a call to arms, the aim of which is clear: “I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world, crimes that are justified by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just the way things are,’ all of which are euphemisms for ‘this world is run by men for the benefit of men.’”
Before Eltahawy actually imagines a world in which women are being inaugurated (in a whimsical moment set in 2050 in which Donya Zaki becomes Egypt’s first woman president; Areej Mohamed, Saudi Arabia’s first woman mufti; and Octavia Hernandez “the third consecutive woman president of the United States of America”), Seven Necessary Sins already feels fantastical in its vision of an alternate (future?) world in which women are powerful and in power, rendering the patriarchy part of an ugly history we’ve all agreed to learn from, and never to repeat.
Eltahawy is famous for refusing to be silent, for what she describes charmingly as “not wanting crumbs” of the patriarchy, but the whole cake. An Egyptian-born activist, journalist, and feminist, she reported in 2011 on the subjecting in Egypt of seventeen female activists to “virginity tests,” a form of sexual assault. Eltahawy suggested that Egypt needed a feminist revolution, and subsequently joined protests against the police and army in Tahrir Square, during which time police beat her, broke her left arm and right hand, sexually assaulted and threatened her with gang rape, detained, blindfolded, and interrogated her. She notes after telling the harrowing story of her detention and the myriad on-line attacks on her that followed it, that Abdel-Fattah el- Sisi, the head of Egyptian military intelligence during her arrest and torture, is now the president of Egypt. I could not help but wonder, and not without a certain amount of pleasure, whether he (and others Eltahawy names and holds responsible for the atrocities taking place on their watches and payrolls) might read her book. She reclaims the word “whore,” often used against her, defusing it by calling herself an “attention whore,” why not? She has something urgent to say, and wields all the words and force at her disposal to make sure she is heard. It’s a risky act, often thrilling to watch, related to the recent moment she describes in which she was groped in a nightclub and tore after her attacker, catching and punching him in the face while screaming, “Don’t ever touch a woman like that again!”
One of the take-aways from Eltahawy’s lived experience and book is that attention itself is both a reward and a punishment. If women get it in sanctioned ways, we are celebrated and protected by the patriarchy, but should we seize or use it toward fighting injustice/thwarting the patriarchy, we are punished, even murdered. After rendering her own story, Eltahawy turns her fierce attention to stories of other women fighting power, model bad-behavior biographies, in other words, sorted by sin. As Eltahawy remarks in a section on education, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” and she makes good by providing models of defiance, courage, and willingness to call out and battle misogyny.
Four such women, all Iraqi, were murdered or died mysteriously over a six-week period in 2018; all were the subjects and objects of attention they had gathered in the service of conveying messages important to them and threatening to the patriarchy. An especially compelling chapter is largely devoted to the work of Stella Nyanzi, an epidemiologist at Makerere University who calls herself as a “queer laughist” and defends LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Nyanzi has been arrested and put on trial for her vocal attacks on Ugandan President Museveni and a poem she wrote about him; she has been dedicated to calling him out for torture of members of the opposition (examples of which include having the skin peeled from their ears and hands), and dismissal of women, including broken promises to poor school girls of sanitary products that would allow them to stay in school. While Museveni himself has yet to be held accountable, Nyanzi’s “radical rudeness” is punishable, as is Michigan Democratic state representative Lisa Brown’s violation of the “decorum of the house,” for her use of the word “vagina” during a debate over an anti-abortion bill. As was the performance of a “punk prayer” in a Moscow’s cathedral in 2012 by female band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, for attacking patriarchy and condemning homophobia.
Seven Necessary Sins gives the exciting, sometimes abrupt sense of someone live-thinking, reading, percolating, and asking. It uses historical and contemporary stories of misogyny to raise and complicate questions, rather than trying to sum up or answer simply: on what systems, fuels, and foot soldiers does patriarchy rely? What forces have contributed to the perpetuation of injustices from physical violence against women to the rigging of medical school admissions in Tokyo? Why must a woman be “firmly within the accepted norms of her society in order to be considered worthy of whatever attention she garners”? How dare governments trumpet civility and police the language of women and girls when the real obscenities are rampant and ruinous: poverty; white supremacy; torture; kidnapping; an “overwhelming and suffocating” amount of violence against women and girls; the racism of lower expectations; girls dropping out of school because discussing menstruation is so taboo that they must be absent when they have their periods? Eltahawy deep dives into egregious examples of crimes against women, including some staggering official statistics on violence against women in Brazil (606 registered domestic violence cases and 164 rapes per day in 2017). Three women a day are killed in the US by intimate partners, and Eltahawy cites figures from the Femicide Census, using facts to ask: if the revolution lives “on the margins,” how might we traverse, transgress, enact wholesale, revolutionary change? She acknowledges that some of her questions are horrifying, intentionally “absurd,” or rhetorical, and doesn’t apologize: “I stand in the disturbance and discomfort caused by the questions I’ve posed.”
In a moment symbolic of the book’s graceful sweep from what’s happened to what could come of it, Eltahawy hearkens back to the time when then Republican nominee Trump made his ignorant and racist remark about Ghazala, the Muslim-American mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, implying that she had nothing to say because she wasn’t allowed to speak. Now, Eltahawy daydreams that maybe Trump’s words “conjured a hex,” and delightfully imagines “a coven of us American-Muslim women working together to bring about Trump’s worst nightmare: not one but two Muslim women—each with plenty to say—elected to the US House of Representatives in November 2018.” Then she names the model women: Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib; and Ilhan Omar, a Somali American.
Seven Necessary Sins races into intentionally provocative territory, including a chapter on what the world would look like if violence were perpetrated by women against men instead of the other way around (the reality). The section “Violence” conjures a full-throated declaration of war. It suggests that we should be screaming in a chorus, joined by those whose words and power Eltahawy amplifies, from queer Chicana poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa; to comedians Michelle Wolf and Mindy Kahling; punk activist Nadya Tolokonnikova; actress Helen Mirren; poet Erika L. Sanchez; artist Hilma af Klint; leaders Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff; Islamic Studies Professor Amina Wadud; Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from northern Iraq who was sexually enslaved by ISIS; Rahaf Mohamed, a Saudi Arabian woman who sought asylum in Thailand, was threatened with extradition, and then galvanized a network of feminists and won freedom; and rapper/songwriter Cardi B., whom Eltahawy quotes defending herself: “Let me be free.”
Why not accept Eltahawy’s invitation to a revolutionary party? Why not imagine the fullest extent of what intersectional gender justice might look like, and keep fighting the forces that intentionally disenfranchise, discredit, and marginalize women? The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls offers a lucid distillation of collective aims and messages, as well as a jolt of bravery. Its philosophy demands that we stop yielding, conceding, apologizing, and restraining ourselves, and gives us permission to use our considerable power to free and protect ourselves. And, as Eltahawy’s signature slogan encourages, to “fuck the patriarchy.”
Rachel DeWoskin is the award-winning author of five novels, including Someday We Will Fly, Blind, and Big Girl Small. Her most recent work is Banshee, published in 2019 by Dottir Press. She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago.
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
To read Imani Perry’s new book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, as an African American mother of a teenage son is both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. It is not unlike raising a Black boy in America. It prompts a complex rush of emotions. I highlighted so many passages, lines that I wanted to remember, to use as inspiration—including those that made me wince in uncomfortable recognition—I simply decided to reread the book as soon as I’d finished it.
The book evokes so well the myriad ways in which Black parents and children alike must be intentional about how we inhale and exhale. And frankly, given this moment in which we live, the book reminds us all to take a deep breath. It is so startling and apt and timely that you will likely devour it the way a swimmer takes a giant gulp of air as she cracks the surface of the water—greedily and gratefully.
Right from the start, Perry states her position directly to her two Black sons, Issa and Freeman: Between me and these others—who utter the sentence—the indelicate assertion hangs midair…. But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one.
She goes on to give the truth to her sons straight, no chaser. And here is where she takes our breath away:
I have known from the first day of your lives that I cannot guarantee your safety…. Racism is in every step and every breath we take. It has been proven over and over again … you are always under the watchman’s eye … the insult is incessant … you are remarkable boys, but we are all at risk of falling under the sway of a much too cruel world … feeling deep love and complete helplessness to protect the beloveds is a fact of Black life.
We’ve not seen this intimacy from Perry’s writing before. She is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and prolific author of several books, including the award-winning Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. But the interrogative, intellectual writer we’ve come to know makes her presence felt throughout these pages as well. That Perry can navigate so seamlessly between interiority and the interrogation of American culture is astonishing. There’s something so tender and vulnerable about Perry’s voice here, yet I would not call it “raw.” It’s refined and honed, each word burnished and given to us with care, as a hand-carved, African sculpture might be bestowed by its creator; it’s a loving gesture, this book, mindful of its recipient.
You will likely think of Breathe as the companion piece to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, his letter to his son, which laid out his own coming-of-age as a Black man in America as a way of instruction and warning and guidance. Perry’s letter to her sons is that, too. At its stripped-down core this is a manual for living, replete with sound advice for Freeman and Issa. We are cognizant that Perry’s oneword advice to her sons, “breathe,” is a way of insisting they stay alive, that they do what Eric Garner plaintively repeated over and over that he could not do against a policeman’s chokehold, a cutting off of breath that ultimately stopped his heart. But Breathe is so much more than a guide or a caution, and more revealing. It is a layered meditation, one that fluidly moves through memory, history, “wild-eyed” whiteness, faith, ancestral inheritance, community, freedom, and grace … a kind of holistic, textual nebulizer Perry provides to her boys, a lifeline she knows they will ultimately need.
To be clear, we’ve never seen a book like this before. This is a beacon for any young African American trying to swim through the waters of that unique antagonism that America has long held for its Black citizens, be they man-child or woman-child. In fact, in her acknowledgments, Perry says that had she written this book for girls her advice would be much the same. And as the mother of a teenage daughter, I find a lot here to glean for helping my fifteen-year-old make her way in the world.
Breathe also transcends race-specificity, just as Perry’s own personal narrative does, just as her own boys do. It’s for any person of color, and for any mother looking for articulation of her own doubts and fears and hopes; and this book is for anyone who resides in difference, and/or is rearing a human being who does, i.e., that wide family of us who are not white, male, and straight.
Amidst the advice and eloquence and shimmering honesty is Perry’s own story folded in via pivotal anecdotes. We learn some stark facts about her, almost in passing: that in Black spaces she has always become physically indistinguishable; her struggle with asthma and lupus (what she calls “hallmarks of an inherited vigilance”); that she had a white daddy who was not her biological father; that she is a “born mama,” a nurturer by disposition. We also learn that as she toggled between her life in Birmingham and Chicago and Cambridge, there were moments of joy.
And in a passage that prompted me to do likewise, she tells her sons what she loves. She lists 21 different things—from drinking limeade and being outside in the summertime, to reading and people-watching to laughter and silliness to sitting in solitude and crocheting—that personally bring her joy. Because she understands that as mothers, giving our children the chance to really see us for who we are as individual women is important, too.
Its bruising honesty comes most powerfully when Perry admits her mistakes, her missteps and uncertainties as a mother. Who among us as mothers hasn’t once lost a child in a public place, or questioned our decision to not offer up religion to our offspring (“I haven’t raised you in the church, and I probably won’t now … I wonder if this isn’t another area in which I have failed you when it comes to discipline….”) or felt the guilt that comes when a child has an accident, when a child falls, bleeds, hurts? She speaks to that conundrum all parents face, complicated for Black parents by a real and present danger, of not wanting to clip their children’s wings in the effort of trying to keep them safe. We can hear her reminding herself to heed her own advice as she tells her sons, “Yes, we are afraid but we cannot wear terror around our necks like cowbells for our own denigration, no matter how lost we feel, no matter how dangerous the poisons.”
And yet, what also comes through is what she has gotten right, how sensitive and conscious her sons are, how the arc of their moral universe already bends toward justice. She has allowed them to be her guides, her teachers even as she parents them, understanding that children are not extensions of the parent. She does not gloss over their particularities, nor present them as perfect boys. She is too honest for that; but she does show us what it means to see each child for who he is, in his specificity, and to love him for that, full stop, so that you can give him the tools to protect his selfhood, his self-worth. “Freeman, you arrived as an independent fugitive … you can see another world,” she tells her oldest. “Issa, you called my refusal to let you pierce your ears inconsistent with my feminist identity,” she tells her youngest. “True ... Be better than me with respect to that.” She lays out for her boys what her hope is for their future, for their becoming:
You have been running from lies since you were born. But the truth is we do not simply run away from something; we run to something…. I want you to be appreciated for your labors and gifts. But what I hope for you is nothing as small as prestige. I hope for a living passion, profound human intimacy and connection, beauty and excellence. The greatness that you achieve, the hope I have for it, for you, is a historic sort, not measured in prominence.
Oh, that we’d all receive such a letter of boldfaced, unconditional love from our parents; Oh, that we as parents would take the time to craft such a letter to our children.
“She was devoted to the human race, but she was not romantic about it,” James Baldwin said of Lorraine Hansberry. This line came to me as I finished reading Perry’s book the second time. Imani Perry also is not a romantic, but she is a woman of deep devotion, and that is what will bring you back to this slim, penetrating book many times, like rereading your favorite psalm; or perhaps more precisely like a morning meditation, deep breaths filling your lungs with air, leaving you in a state of grace.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author most recently of the memoir, The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing.
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance By Carolyn Forché
Reviewed by Joann Gardner
Taken from the opening line of her poem “The Colonel,” What You Have Heard Is True is the title of Carolyn Forché’s recently published memoir. It concerns her involvement in events leading up to and including the civil war in El Salvador (1979–1992) and the relationship between that experience and her development as a Poet of Witness. Although Forché cites children of Salvadoran refugees (“who want to know more about their country”) and her own son Sean-Christophe (“so he will know this part of his parents’ past”) as her audience, this text has a much wider reach, including US citizens seeking to understand their country’s involvement in Central American politics, students of literature measuring the relationship between creative selfexpression and activism, and poets who must decide about their own place in an increasingly violent world. It also addresses women, singularly and as a group, for whom war has traditionally been considered a masculine undertaking. While this account offers no direct answers to the questions it raises, it does provide a number of details from which one may draw conclusions. What we know from the beginning is that it is factual, all the more gripping for the shock that it really happened—this way.
Forché’s account of her poetic re-education begins in El Salvador with a scene in which she and her guide, Leonel Gomez Vides, encounter a dismembered corpse in a cornfield. He has told her to wait, to stay behind, but the poet is not good at waiting, and her urge for immediacy takes her to a situation that is difficult to absorb. She notices flies and turkey buzzards humming about a corpse. A man’s crotch is covered with tar. His legs and one of his arms are gone, as is his head. Silently, hypnotically, the campesinos who accompany them collect the head, which is missing its eyes, lips, and tongue, and the severed limbs and reposition them around the mangled torso. They take off their straw hats and pray over the remains. “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” the poet thinks she asks.
This nightmarish event sets the stage for scenes teaching job in Southern California, to a country on the brink of collapse, where poverty, violence, and corruption are the norm. It depicts a flurry of encounters with figures who occupy the various sides of this conflict: from the military strongmen who live opulently off confiscated US aid, to public servants who make do with little to no resources, to the simple farmers who occupy the champas in the Salvadoran countryside and whose mutilated bodies are regularly displayed in public places as a warning against dissent. Such encounters are interspersed with memories from her own past in order to discern what she, a young American woman, could bring to bear on this suffering. It’s all part of a process, founded in a belief in words; a way of internalizing experience, so that it can be rendered with the immediacy and emotional accuracy that Witness requires. “Mira” (“Look, …”), Leonel would say at the beginning of each exchange, and there would follow explanations, clues that would lead her closer to understanding. Other senses were also engaged—hearing, smelling, tasting—and, after that, entries in her notebook, a shorthand of responses, written in pencil “so the words evanesce.” Here, one finds personalities, images, and encounters to help the poet remember. One also encounters silences: emotions and events for which there are no words, and in those cases, the page is left blank.
Identity is a recurring theme in this saga, pushed forward by the question as to why Forché would go to El Salvador in the first place. What was her goal? And who is this Leonel, really? The man who showed up at her door unannounced with papers and maps and convinced her to join him on this perilous journey? Who is she, a twentyseven- year-old woman, enjoying early poetic success, who sets aside concerns for her own safety for reasons that are not quite clear? To those closest to him, Leonel is a puzzle, a person not to be discussed. He seems to have no active employment, no fixed abode. He shows up and disappears unpredictably, sometimes in the company of another person, sometimes by himself. He takes her to meet peasants, dignitaries, soldiers, and men of the cloth; leaves her at various safe houses, apartments, flophouses, champas; depends on relatives and acquaintances to take him in. He uses pseudonyms, too, on one occasion, going by “Hermano” (Brother); on another, “Christos” from the movie Z. On yet another, he acknowledges that one faction of the guerillas calls him El Gordo because they think him fat. Even his aunt, Forché’s mentor Claribel Alegria, doesn’t know who he really is. “So who is Gomez?” Leonel says to Forché, “Nobody knows.”
Forché assumes various identities as well: Papu (adopted granddaughter of Grandpa Goodmorning), journalist, girl, nun, CIA operative, doctor, nurse ... poeta. This shape-shifting comes partially from her own lack of self-knowledge, partially from the various roles Leonel has her play. On one occasion, she poses as a doctor in a local hospital. On another, she is an emissary from the US government, trying to get information on an American citizen thought to have been “disappeared.” On yet another, she is a nun working with the resistance to locate the desaparecidos. Sometimes, she resents Leonel’s manipulations, sometimes she goes along with them, not fully understanding where it all will lead. She herself is a cipher, a collection of impulses that don’t quite add up. “Listen to me, Carolyn,” her friend Margarita tells her. “I’m going to try to explain you…” The poet seizes on this phrasing. ‘“Explain me,” I thought to myself, “good luck.”
In the course of several visits, the poet does learn from her experiences, not only about the political dynamics of El Salvador, but her relationship to the people who suffer under military rule. She moves from a condition of fear and disorientation to a determined focus, discovering in herself the courage not to look away. One stage in this process comes after a visit to a prison, where she is confronted with the stench of human waste and sees in a darkened room “wooden boxes the size of washing machines” in which men are kept in solitary confinement. Unsteadily, she returns to the van where Leonel is waiting, vomits, sobs, and says she has had enough. “Papu, listen,” he tells her. “You are always asking me why people don’t do something… Could you fight back at this moment?”
This lesson is followed immediately by another. She wants to cancel her meeting that evening with a group of local poets. She waits outside as Leonel goes in to deliver her regrets. One of the participants comes out and tells her that the meeting has been cancelled; the wife of one of the poets has just had a baby. She goes inside to see and discovers a woman lying on a blanket on the floor, her new baby next to her in a cardboard box. They have named her Alma, (meaning “spirit” or “soul”).
The spokesman presents her with a sheath of freshly mimeographed poems. “We were hoping that if you publish them in the United States,” he tells her, “you will be careful not to say who gave them to you.” This experience stays with her, guiding her responses to future challenges:
That night I knew that something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off … and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems.
The final section of this memoir is devoted to returning. The poet has spent some time at the Catholic University, working on human rights. She has made the acquaintance of Monsen͂or Oscar Romero, the activist priest who shelters the poor and speaks out against the brutal practices of his government. She has survived several close calls with the death squads, including one in which she and an unidentified photographer prevent a massacre of refugees by threatening to record the event for the American press. Seemingly, she has earned a place in this world and a growing sense of her own worth, but even Leonel believes it is time for her to go home.
She returns to the United States a week before Monsen͂or Romero is assassinated and the civil war begins. She experiences what she describes as a period of great personal turmoil, in which she relocates to the East coast, teaches briefly at two universities, and publishes her new book of poems, containing her iconic prose poem about “The Colonel,” with his bag of human ears. The implicit question for this phase of her existence is: can a young American woman experience such atrocities and not be permanently marked by them? Can she put aside these images and live?
The answer comes in the form the American photojournalist whose path she crossed during a raid in El Salvador. Having been assigned to write the narrative for a book of photographs, she works with him to communicate the truth about events leading up to the Salvadoran civil war. They go on to marry and have a son, exchanging cartons of cigarettes and mugs of black coffee for juice boxes and Legos, strategies of evasion for scheduled play dates, and a fixed abode. But there is always a sense of disassociation for her between what Americans assume about El Salvador and what she has learned from her experiences there. A young defector from the Salvadoran army comes to stay with them while seeking asylum. He testifies before Congress as to the brutality and corruption of his government and is repaid for his efforts by being sent back to the Generals and to his death.
This is a compelling memoir, poetically written. It offers important contexts for Forché’s second book of poems, The Country Between Us, and it raises essential questions about the role of poetry: whether it can contribute to positive change; whether the cost to those writing it is worth the sacrifice. What is clear here is that it holds promise for those who believe, providing emblems by which they live and work. Even within a context of extremity, there is continuance: a baby in a cardboard box; words scrawled on a page.
Joann Gardner is associate professor of English at Florida State University, where she regularly teaches Contemporary Poetry, from both a critical and a creative point of view. She is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks, including, most recently, The Deaf Island.
The Yellow House By Sarah M. Broom
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
For several months I’ve been on book tour for a memoir I wrote about my mother, and much of it centers on the red brick fourbedroom Colonial house she bought, which was the symbol of our middle-class life. Audience members often say to me about the inspired descriptions of my family home: “Wow, it makes me wish I’d grown up in that house.”
Sarah M. Broom’s evocative and startling memoir The Yellow House is also about a family home that her mother bought in the same year my mom bought ours, 1961, but that’s where the similarities might seem to end. Broom describes the modest wooden shotgun house with the screenedin porch that her mother Ivory Mae bought at age nineteen, with $3200 cash, as an ever-challenging physical space in which to live and grow up. The falling-down, fragile house was tended to and patched up constantly by her father, Simon Broom; but by the time of his death when Sarah was six months old, the house remained decidedly unfinished. Where there should be walls was just framing; a naked ceiling exposed unfinished beams. The house suffered mightily from electrical problems, with the lights in the “add-on” her father had built shorting out; a sister ’s “amateur carpenter” boyfriend laid linoleum on the kitchen floor that started curling, which led to holes in the floor, which likely led to the rats that took up residence; the plumbing never worked right, so they kept buckets under the kitchen sink to catch the dishwater. The one bathroom with a lock on its door also had an ever-broken faucet, prompting the brood to boil water on the stove and fill the tub for the baths they loved. Some nights, Sarah and her siblings returned home to find termites or flying cockroaches gathered in their rooms.
“This is how your disappointment in a space builds, becomes personal,” writes Broom. “You kitchen do not warm me. You living room, do not comfort me. You bedroom, do not keep me.”
And yet, Broom tells us this unwieldy house with its yellow siding was her mother’s first and only house, and that “within its walls, my mother made its world. Twelve children passed through its doors.” As she worked hard to make her home tenable, sewing curtains to cover door-less cabinets and putting up pretty Christmas decorations and scrubbing everything clean and trying to repair things herself, Ivory Mae wrestled to tame the Yellow House like it was her thirteenth unruly child. “To describe the house fully in its coming apart feels maddening,” Broom tells us. “Like trying to pinpoint the one thing that ruins a person’s personality.”
Over time, battling against the brutal elements of nature, poor construction, time and heavy usage, Broom’s mom became ashamed of the house she’d so diligently nurtured, that once held her dreams in its potential; she began to see it through others’ eyes. She voiced that shame by saying You know this house not all that comfortable for other people. It was uncomfortable for Sarah and her siblings, too. “The evidence stared back at us,” writes Broom. “We became more private then. In a way, you could say we became the Yellow House. Here is a riddle: What was worse? The house or hiding the house? Shame is a slow creeping at first, a violent implosion later.”
What elevates this memoir from an account of growing up in and getting away from a crumbling house in a depressed neighborhood of a mythologized city is Broom’s language. Her descriptions are tactile and redolent, her observations stunningly astute. The writing itself conveys a dignity that permeates Sarah and her family members’ lives despite the tenuousness, and the poverty that hovered, threatening to engulf. You come to know and understand the inhabitants of the Yellow House, even as you come to know the ways in which the house shaped and defined them, and the ways it didn’t:
“There was the house we lived in and the house we thought we should live in,” she tells us. There was the house we thought we should live in and the house other people thought we should live in. These houses were colliding. And the actual house? My memories of the house’s disintegration have collided, the strains impossible to separate, its disintegration a straight line always lengthening, ad infinitum.
You understand exactly what her mother Ivory Mae means when she said, “This house doesn’t reflect who we are.”
But it did reflect a New Orleans steeped in exploitation, neglect, and racial bias. The family home was bearing witness to that truth. Its location in the city is a case in point: Far removed from both the much-featured Ninth Ward and the touristy French Quarter, the Yellow House was located in New Orleans East, a section of the city that’s seven miles from the French Quarter and fifty times its size. New Orleans East, as a development, was supposed to be an ideal community, rising, like a space-age city within a city, from its cypress swamp wetlands, what Bloom describes as “a rural village right in the middle of building up.” A place whose potential her mother allowed her dreams to get tied up in. Broom places us there beside her in the East, as it was called—“that abandoned suburban experiment”—most vividly in her description of the harrowing Chef Menteur Highway, a treacherous four-lane road that she and her siblings had to cross, the very one which a car dragged her sister Karen down when she was eight years old.
The section of the memoir that describes the impact of Hurricane Katrina, what Broom calls “the Water,” on Broom’s family members is the most haunting. To read her brothers’ firsthand chronicles of harrowing escape, now, fourteen years after, is in some ways more profound for its distance and simplicity of fact: Her brother Carl rode out the Water for seven days atop a roof after axing himself out of an attic; her brother Michael joined fourteen other people in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lafitte Projects, walking or swimming the streets daily to forage for food; once finally rescued, all fifteen of them were flown to San Antonio. The rest of the family didn’t know Carl or Michael’s whereabouts for eleven days. Before Katrina, Broom had six siblings living in or near New Orleans, as well as her mother and seventeen nieces and nephews. After the storm, only two brothers remained in Louisiana. Her extended family became part of that third of the city’s population (over 92,000 people) that didn’t return to the city after the Water. The Yellow House itself did not survive post- Katrina, torn down less than a year later by the city for “imminent danger of collapse.” (After waiting eleven years, her mother finally received a grant for the property, and the lot where the house once stood was auctioned off).
In the intervening years, Sarah grappled with how a phantom Yellow House, how New Orleans itself, had penetrated her psyche, and invaded her dreams. “Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word,” she writes. “We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs….”
For years, Broom travelled to faraway places. Apart from living at various points in California and Texas and New York, we learn that she spent her 31st birthday riding a camel in Cairo, that she visited the Khmer Rouge site in Cambodia, and travelled to Berlin and Istanbul. She moved to Burundi for several months at the suggestion of Samantha Powers (who later became US ambassador to the UN), a move she now admits was an “urge to distance myself from the fate of my family, which of course was my fate, too.”
She also continued to feel the pull of home, moving back more than once, even living briefly in the French Quarter, in an apartment featuring an iron balcony railing with designs hammered out by slaves.
Toni Morrison once said, “Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure … They are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.”
Morrison could be describing Sarah Broom, moving often to places far from New Orleans (“What adventure you on now?,” her siblings would ask when they called her), she who felt without a home. Yet Broom kept creating “beauty out of ordinary spaces,” perfected mini yellow houses, wherever she went. Her memoir is ultimately a story of nest and adventure, of home and away, of where you come from and what you’re headed to, and how it makes you who you are. The depth and nuance of this story is a tribute to Broom’s patience in waiting to tell it, in letting it nest so to speak, for more than a decade after the Water. This is a story that has marinated, steeped itself in time and distance and maturing black womanhood to emerge as an arresting narrative on its way to becoming a classic.
“When you are the babiest in a family with eleven older points-of-view, eleven rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices, all variations of the communal story, developing your own becomes a matter of survival,” Broom tells us. “There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.”
This memoir is the story of Sarah M. Broom’s surviving, and thriving, which is to say the full emergence of her voice. You will want to hear everything she has to say.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers (Little, Brown and Company; 2019). She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing and is Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
Valerie By Sara Stridsberg, translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Hating Valerie Solanas (and Loving Violent Men) By Chavisa Woods
Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote Scum (and Shot Andy Warhol) By Breanne Fahs
I Shot Andy Warhol (including full text of SCUM Manifesto) By Mary Harron and David Minahan;
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
By Laurie Stone
For centuries the world writes learned studies proving the biological inferiority of females and depicts them as contaminants. The world devises social and religious policy propped by the certainty of female inferiority. In 1967, at age 33, Valerie Solanas self-publishes SCUM Manifesto, a brief, funny screed asserting that males are biologically inferior, owing to their damaged Y chromosomes. She argues that males should be treated as inferior, and her writing is pronounced crazy, perverse, and dangerous. She sells mimeographed copies on the street, charging men a dollar and women 25 cents.
At age seven, her father begins raping her on the porch swing when her mother leaves the house. She retains a memory of counting roses on the seat cushion and finding gum in her hair. By fifteen, she is homeless. During this period, she falls in love with a sailor and gives birth to a son she does not see after he is born. In 1954, at eighteen, she enrolls at the University of Maryland, where she is openly lesbian, likes talking about jazz and art, and supports herself through prostitution. After graduation, she’s accepted on scholarship to a PhD program in psychology at the University of Minnesota. She doesn’t complete the degree, and in 1965 sets off to be a writer in New York City. Through Candy Darling, she gains entrée to Andy Warhol and the Factory world. Andy sees something in her he recognizes. Both are shy, ambitious, from Catholic, working class backgrounds, dubious about sex, and awkward in front of cameras. She agrees to perform in his movie, I, a Man (released in 1967), improvising all her dialogue. She makes him laugh. She never stops pushing him to produce her play, Up Your Ass. Ultimately he tires of her and misplaces the only copy of her play. In 1996, after both are dead, the play will resurface in a trunk owned by (Factory archivist) Billy Name.
In 1988, Mary Harron, a researcher for the BBC, happens upon a copy of the manifesto in a London bookshop, and it takes hold of her. In 1996, the film I Shot Andy Warhol premieres, directed by Harron and cowritten with Daniel Minahan, featuring Lili Taylor as Solanas and Jared Harris as Warhol. In the introduction to her shooting script, published to debut with the film, Harron says Valerie’s text “reached a core of anger I didn’t know I possessed.... It made me wonder about blighted talents, vanished possibilities, and what might be lurking in the great host of humanity we call failures.”
On June 3, 1968, Valerie waits outside the Factory on Union Square, rides the elevator up with Andy, then shoots him three times with a .32 caliber pistol, wounds the art critic Mario Amaya in the hip, and tries to shoot Andy’s manager, Fred Hughes. After the gun jams, she rides the elevator to the street and gives herself up to a cop at Times Square, explaining she is lonely and wants to talk to someone.
In 2006, Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg’s novel Valerie is published to acclaim in Sweden. It depicts the life of Solanas in a collage of fictional and documentary scenes that skillfully jump between locations and time periods. In 2019, it is translated into English by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published in the US. Why the time gap? The backward glance is always about now. In 1988, Valerie dies alone of pneumonia in a welfare hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Stridsberg sets many scenes of her book during Valerie’s final days, inventing a narrator who interviews Valerie and tries to comfort her. Valerie’s body will be found days after her death, covered with maggots. Her last writings will not be saved. Close to the end of the book, the narrator says to Valerie, “I love you.” Valerie says, “Fuck you.”
On June 6, 1968, three days after shooting Warhol and gaining headline fame, Valerie is again whisked to the margins when Bobby Kennedy is assassinated.
In September of 1968, Maurice Girodias, the publisher of Olympia Press, rushes into print an edition of SCUM Manifesto. Olympia Press has published some of the great works of suppressed literature, among them: Lolita, Candy, Naked Lunch, Story of O, and books by Bataille and Beckett, among many others. Girodias recreates the title as an acronym, Society for Cutting Up Men, that Valerie does not endorse. He has written an introduction to the book, and Paul Krassner writes an afterword. Valerie, confined in Elmhurst Psychiatric Hospital and awaiting trial for attempted murder, is unable to correct the distortions made to her work. Although she had come to his office to shoot him before staking out the Factory, Girodias offers to pay her legal fees. She declines his offer.
Ti-Grace Atkinson, the president of New York NOW, calls Valerie “a heroine of the women’s movement.” Ti-Grace visits Valerie in jail and is criticized by Betty Friedan, NOW’s founder. At the invitation of my teacher Kate Millett, I am present at the meeting where this shit flies. It’s my first time there, and I don’t exactly know what’s going on, but I see there are women like Ti-Grace and Flo Kennedy who embody a raucous approach to feminism—in some ways modeled on the freedom of Warhol’s aesthetic—where you do politics as an in-your-face throw down, not caring whom you offend, counting offense as a plus. And there are women like Friedan, who want to make a revolution without disturbing anyone. In time this stripe of feminist will swap the word abortion for the word choice, and while they will rightly strive to include racism as a grievous social ill, they will not protest the erasure of women’s rights from everyone else’s agendas.
Valerie calls the women’s movement “a civil disobedience luncheon club.” She has measured these categories in SCUM Manifesto, writing,
The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM—dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this “society” and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer—and nice, passive, accepting “cultivated,” polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown ... who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by ... and with a fat, hairy face in the White House ... who ... can have value only ... as soothers, ego boosters, relaxers and breeders....
“All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.”—Jean-Luc Godard, 1991
I Shot Andy Warhol aims for the fragmented, verité style of Warhol’s films. It sends a tender love letter to the down-and-out street girls of the lesbian demimonde who, even after Stonewall, will remain unwelcome in many quarters. Lili Taylor plays Solanas as tough, grandiose, deranged, funny, and poignant.
Taylor wears floppy pants and loose jackets, camouflaging her slender body in an effort to look more formidable. She’s a hustler, an aggressive panhandler prowling the East and West Village. In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, she approaches Warhol at Max’s Kansas City. She’s been made a pariah at the Factory for staging a violent fit when she isn’t paid enough attention to, and she stands on the edge of the group who are seated at a long table, a clique of intimates who will make no place for her. She hops from foot to foot, wanting to poke them and also will them to include her. She’s hardened and softened by the rejection. She has steeled herself to it a long time ago, but she can’t control the impulse to beg, and she thrusts creased, mimeographed copies of SCUM Manifesto at them, which they refuse, shrinking back as if she smells.
Warhol has said he will pay her $25 to appear in a film, and she asks for an advance. He says in his slow drawl that makes him sound dimwitted and shrewd at the same time, “Valerie why don’t you get a job?” She says, “I can’t do that, I’m an artist.” He likes people who work, preferably for him, and he asks around the table if anyone has money, and no one offers any, so he withdraws a crumpled five dollar bill from his pocket and extends it to her so she will go away. She takes it with a look of shame and triumph on her face.
In another scene, she has the odd good luck to panhandle Maurice Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau), unaware he is the publisher of Olympia Press. She asks him to pay her fifteen cents to say a dirty word, and he’s amused and takes her to lunch and gives her a dollar for the thirty minutes of conversation they exchange. In time he offers her a contract and an advance of $500 to write a novel in the tone of bored ease with which she describes turning tricks (i.e., “Ten for a fuck, five for a blow job, two for a hand job. No kissing. No fingers. No licking”). He will publish a book if she will write it, and it must feel like a gun to the head. What happens when you are not a genius and someone says: I will encourage you, I will engage with you, all you need to do is the work?
Until this point in the film, Valerie has been appealing in her over-the-top, butch irreverence and street-rat energy, but now she grows frantic and paranoid, and she stalks Girodias and Warhol. She thinks men are out to get her, and some are, but not these two men in the ways she imagines. She goes to shoot Girodias, but he’s not there, so she continues to the Factory. In Valerie, Stridsberg’s narrator brilliantly distills the next moments in the form of an address to Valerie: “You hold your life in your hand.... The moment you shoot Andy Warhol, you throw away all possibility of being someone other people listen to, the only thing you dream about, the writer, artist, revolutionary, psychoanalyst, rebel.” The bullets damage Warhol’s liver, spleen, esophagus, and lungs. He never completely recovers physically, and afterward suffers from lasting terror she will return to finish him off.
You hold your life in your hand
The narrator of Valerie imagines Valerie with her mother and former lovers, scenes Solanas did not document. The writing is sentimental, fevered, and dream-play poetic. Like this address to Valerie: “To write now would be to throw yourself into an ice-cold tidal wave and drown in the searing pain of salt and self-hatred.” Skip these sections. Nothing will be lost.
The book comes alive when we hear Valerie’s voice (often extracted from SCUM Manifesto) and when the narrator dwells not on why Valerie acted but on the things she did, lining up moments—like exhibits at a trial that has no verdict. Valerie’s position on prostitution: “charging for rape.” Drugs: She used “amphetamine, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepine, and LSD.” Her recollection of her early days at the Factory:
I liked being there so much, I wanted to be one of those needle junkies and fag-whores who sat along the walls, sweating and mumbling and waiting for Andy to come and make art out of them. They were very happy days. Andy laughed at everything I said. I read aloud from the manifesto.... I wanted the Factory to swallow me up forever.”
She is tried in June 1969 and sentenced to two years in prison in addition to the year she has served for the attempted murder of Andy Warhol and his associates. Stridsberg’s narrator again:
What is regarded as an extremely lenient penalty is probably due to Andy Warhol’s refusal to appear in court, the demonstrations outside the courthouse every day in support of your release from hospital, and not least Florynce Kennedy’s blazing defense.
The book skillfully situates Valerie’s life in a historical framework, reminding us, for example, that in 1955 the Hiroshima Maidens arrived in New York City for free reconstructive surgery and in 1953 nuclear testing occurred on Bikini Atoll and the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, a fate Valerie might have faced, according to New York State law at the time, had she killed Warhol instead of wounding him.
And the novel is at its strangest—most murky? most mysterious?—when Stridsberg pits her Daddy’s Girl narrator against her own private Valerie, who always comes out on top, telling the narrator to quit romanticizing her and instead,
Stop in the subway and talk to the psychotic hookers. Don’t walk away when she starts raving about nothing.... Ask what she has in her notes, if you’re so interested in dying crack whores. Visit hostels, mental hospitals, drug ghettos, red-light districts, jails. The world’s out there waiting for you, baby. The material is called SHE’S EVERYWHERE.
Abused crackpot with 15 minutes of fame
In a recent essay in the literary journal Full Stop, critic Chavisa Woods compares Valerie’s status in social memory to the status of male artist-felons, among them William Burroughs, who in 1951 shot his wife Joan Vollmer dead in Mexico, and Norman Mailer, who in 1960 stabbed his wife Adele Morales in the chest, nearly piercing her heart. Pablo Neruda raped a “servant” while visiting her country as a diplomat. Charles Bukowski is on video, Woods reports, “kicking and punching his girlfriend during an interview about his writing, and was said to have been physically abusive to multiple female partners.” French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his wife to death in an act of cold-blooded murder. Woods does not include the unwitnessed murder in 1986 by sculptor Carl Andre of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, who plunged from a 33-story window, following a violent argument witnesses heard. Andre said they were arguing about his greater artistic success.
Burroughs was not arrested, and he left Mexico. Mailer claimed that if he hadn’t stabbed Adele, he would have gotten cancer from repressed rage. He walked away from the stabbing with a suspended sentence for third-degree assault and spent fifteen days in a psychiatric ward. Neruda wrote about the rape as a no-big-deal episode in his memoir I Confess that I have Lived (1974). In the Wikipedia bio for Althusser, Woods notes, the murder of his wife is mentioned in the last paragraph and only in the context of his mental illness: “Althusser’s life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her.” In 1988, Carl Andre was tried and acquitted of Mendieta’s murder on the grounds of “reasonable doubt.”
All these men continued to work, publish, and collect praise. Adele Morales did not press charges. I lived next door to her from 1967 to 1973, and we became friends. I wondered but did not ask her why, after the stabbing, she spent two more years with Mailer before leaving him. In 2014, I joined a protest organized by the performance artist Christen Clifford against a giant retrospective of Carl Andre’s work at Dia art gallery. Similar protests dogged the show as it traveled.
Does anyone still read Mailer? Woods quotes a passage from Advertisements for Myself (1959) that sounds like something Valerie might have written as a parody of male rage:
I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today.... I do not seem able to read them. Indeed, I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.... I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.
Dykily psychotic! A new height to aim for!
Every backward glance is about now
There are people who declare they are a genius—Gertrude Stein comes to mind—then produce enough work to qualify for recognition. What might Solanas have become if she’d had Stein’s money and been less nuts? Warhol was famous, and he was a man, and Valerie wanted him to help her, and she went for him the way hustlers go for you, with a hand out and a push, without embarrassment and nothing but embarrassment, with bravado that is not earned and is everywhere on the landscape of advertising the Factory fed on. The culture of branding and self-promotion and marketing is Valerie shaking you down at an ATM. At the end of the 1970s she’s sighted at Tompkins Square Park and at St. Mark’s Place: hungry, dirty, alone, selling sex and the manifesto, threatening to kill Kate Millett and to throw lye in the face of Robin Morgan because they defended her.
SCUM Manifesto is a performance of Valerie’s personality, not a kit for murdering famous men. “I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted him to pay attention to me. Talking to him was like talking to a chair,” she is quoted in Breanne Fahs’s 2014 biography as saying when asked for the umpteenth time why she shot Andy Warhol. SCUM is a manifestation of rage few people want to believe exists in the female heart. I would say it exists in the heart of every woman who has lived in a body interpreted as female. I would say it’s small potatoes beside the rage at women considered ordinary in the codes of every religion and in the writings of man after man after man.
Reading Chavisa Woods’s essay, I was at first uncertain about the comparison she was making between writers and artists of considerable achievement and Solanas, who wrote clumsily and very little. But who attracts us now, and who do we care to think about? For the vast part, when I read the books of men, it doesn’t matter what century, I find I do not exist in them, nor does anyone like me exist in them, and it is like reading the literature of a lost civilization.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal: Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-atlarge on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality By Jennifer Nash
Reviewed by Chelsea Johnson
Intersectionality is perhaps the most popularly embraced, discussed, and debated concept to emerge from black feminist thought. Like many ideas with broad explanatory power, intersectionality has inspired, expanded, traveled, and morphed. Many generations after intersectional thinking appears in women of color activism, and three decades after the term was coined in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s legal work, intersectionality has become a research method, an academic discipline, a call for representation, a diversity and inclusion initiative, a benchmark for feminist organizing—and it has become a target of virulent critique.
Two recent books, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer Nash and Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism by Barbara Tomlinson, grapple with the forces talking about intersectionality. In Undermining Intersectionality, Tomlinson writes as a self-identified white embodied feminist defending intersectionality against power-blind white feminism. In Black Feminism Reimagined, Nash writes as a self-identified black feminist asking black feminists to let go of their defensive hold on intersectionality as the exclusive property of black women. Both books tackle three interrelated, overarching questions: What does it mean for intersectionality to be institutionalized within women’s studies, when the university is precisely the type of neoliberal and hierarchical social system that black feminism critiques? What does it mean if popular applications of intersectionality separate the theory from black women, when their experiences and labor—intellectually and otherwise—have historically been exploited, misrepresented, and devalued? How should intersectional feminists feel about intersectionality becoming a target of academic politics and critique? Tomlinson’s and Nash’s answers to these questions are productively at odds.
First, a note on style: Nash and Tomlinson treat upper-case and lower-case Black vs. black differently and do so with implicit purpose that seems to align with their core world-views on race and theory. Nash uses lower case, while Tomlinson uses lower case to refer to black bodies but upper case to refer to Black feminism. Moving forward, I follow the authors’ leads when writing this review.
Given that black women scholars continue to be one of the most underrepresented and overworked groups in the academy, shouldn’t black feminist academics stake their claim to a concept and an emerging discipline that has become the standard of good feminism for women’s studies departments? In Black Feminism Reimagined, Jennifer Nash responds with a definitive no. Three decades after intersectionality took women’s studies by storm, Nash finds black feminism’s preoccupation with defending intersectionality to be exhausting and toxic.
Black Feminism Reimagined is Nash’s account of the state of black feminism within the discipline of women’s studies, based on discourse analysis of black feminists’ reflections about intersectionality and their own work. She observes that black feminists have assumed a disciplinary role within women’s studies, literally and symbolically showing white women the limits of their thinking in scholarship, organizing, and activism. Intersectionality’s analytical disruption of mainstream feminist assumptions about universal sisterhood has most visibly and effectively accomplished this disciplinary work. But as intersectionality took hold in the field, black feminists have largely responded in a protective way, fearing that their contributions might be undone or appropriated by institutionalization, varying interpretations, and use by non-black women. Nash speculates that black feminism’s current conceptual foci on death, representation, and care exacerbate and maintain a defensiveness of intersectionality, and that these strands of black feminism rationalize black feminists’ treatment of intersectionality as a property under threat, a disciplinary tool, and a love to be protected.
Black Feminism Reimagined concedes that misinterpretations of intersectionality are common. The university’s conflation of intersectionality with diversity and the politics of inclusion, for an example, has been a constant point of frustration for black feminists. In response, it has become conventional for black feminists to tell “origin stories” that remind others that true intersectionality is a product of black feminist social justice work, and that white feminists would know this if they only read the “right” readings. Such corrective discourses reduce intersectionality to an imagined single history and foreclose generative debate. From Nash’s point of view, treating intersectionality as if it is property that has been lost or stolen on account of idea migration, transformation, or critique wastes energy that black feminists might productively spend beyond the “intersectionality wars.” She implores black feminists to separate their care for black feminism from ownership over intersectionality, and to “let go” of their impulse to control what black feminist thought inspires in and from others. Nash points out that “[while] black feminist theory has brilliantly captured the ways in which the US academy has been a killing machine that cannibalizes black women, it has yet to fully capture the toxicity of defensiveness, and how exhausting— physically, spiritually, psychically—the defensive posture can be.”
The second half of Black Feminism Reimagined wonders what it would mean if black feminists told the story of intersectionality differently. What if black feminists included women’s studies’ turn to transnationalism in their reflections about intersectionality’s impact on the field in the 1990s? Nash argues that black feminists’ investment in keeping black women at the center of intersectional analyses prevents intimacy and solidarity with other women of color feminists, who likewise challenge feminism’s imagined hegemonic white Western middle-class feminist subject. Instead of feeling competitive or being isolated by the academy’s tokenization of women of color, Nash encourages black feminists to practice the politics of solidarity and community that are so central to black feminist thought. Doing so, she envisions a reimagined black feminism that pushes back against women’s studies departments’ narrow and tokenizing tendencies to associate intersectionality with black women’s bodies, and transnationalism with brown women’s bodies.
As someone who has fought for funding and recognition in the neoliberal academy and opted out from exhaustion, I understand the defensiveness Nash observes in and of black feminism. I’ve felt defensive for years. However, as a black feminist trained in sociology and not in women’s studies, as a scholar who has never been committed to the Ivory Tower, and as someone who finds black feminist thought more powerful in applied rather than academic settings, I find Nash’s descriptions of black feminists in Black Feminism Reimagined otherwise peculiar for a few reasons. First, most sociologists use intersectionality as an analytic to think about the relationship between interlocking social structures and lived experiences, without limiting analysis to black female subjectivity alone. Second, many black feminists do take up intersectionality in relationship to transnationalism and decolonialism, and in collaboration with differently racialized women of color, both within and beyond the United States. Moreover, many black feminists are not positioned within nor loyal to the academy, and are working for impact rather than intellectual ownership.
Though the black feminists and scholars of intersectionality in my world do not fit Nash’s descriptions, and even if I don’t always agree with her, what Nash does in Black Feminism Reimagined is new, brave, and important. For skeptical readers like myself, it will likely be the book’s last analytical chapter that inspires a change of heart. In “Love in the Time of Death,” Nash models the vulnerable love she preaches in her loving undoing and reinterpretation of black feminism’s relationship to the state. She draws upon June Jordan, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Patricia J. Williams to apply a black feminist politics of love to intersectionality and the law. Noting that the law produces black women’s invisibility, Nash considers what it would mean for black women, for all people, and for the earth if the law sought justice for injury rather than property loss. Here Nash shows readers how to “let go,” and how to reimagine black feminism in this contemporary moment.
In Undermining Intersectionality, Barbara Tomlinson does exactly what Black Feminism Reimagined begs black feminists to abandon doing—she lays down a forceful defense of intersectionality’s contribution to knowledge and of women of color’s ownership over “true” intersectional thought. Tomlinson meticulously analyzes popular feminist discussions about intersectionality and their discursive strategies, finding that the most vocal critics tend to neglect any meaningful engagement with intersectionality’s original texts, the racial studies literature, the history of European imperialism and slavery, or their own positionalities. Most criticisms, Tomlinson argues, are color-blind, contextblind, and power-blind, implicitly reinscribing white women as the central subject of and authority over mainstream feminism. For this reason, Tomlinson names intersectionality’s critics white feminists, a discursive move that makes visible what is too often invisible—the hierarchical racial power relations of neoliberal academia and mainstream feminism.
The first half of Undermining Intersectionality focuses on white feminists’ critiques of intersectionality, which tend to misinterpret intersectionality’s key texts and metaphors. For example, a popular criticism dismisses the theory’s use of social categories as outdated and rigid, when in actuality, the logic of binary either/or categorization is the product of white male elites via European imperialism, not Black feminism. Tomlinson points out that when Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality, she used the intersection as a metaphor to describe the contextually situated and mutually constitutive nature of social categories and systems of oppression in order to make black women’s unique experiences at the nexus of anti-black racism and patriarchy visible to the court of law. Undermining Intersectionality reminds readers that Crenshaw’s intersectionality was deeply shaped by her own training and method as a critical race legal scholar. Broader reading of critical race theory would likely clarify to white feminists that intersectionality views identity as fluid, and more importantly that it strategically takes up categories to understand them. Intersectionality subverts categories through a both/and logic in order to to free subjugated people from oppression. Much of Undermining Intersectionality is such a corrective, laying bare the misinterpretations, misquotes, misreadings, and mistakes that white feminism makes in impressive detail.
The second half of Undermining Intersectionality argues that the white feminist scholarly conversation about intersectionality amounts to what Tomlinson calls an epistemic machine, a system of training, description, argumentation, citation, and publication that devalues, condescends, excludes, and dismisses women of color ’s contributions to feminism. Tomlinson notes that when white feminists take up intersectionality, they tend to colonize it by neglecting to attribute the theory to the women of color from whom it originated, misrepresenting it so they can take credit for solving its imaginary defects, or emptying it of its anti-racist political imperatives. Feminists-in-training are expected to cite and build upon such white feminist discussions of intersectionality in order to be taken seriously as well-read in the field, and such “contemporary citational practices operate as a conservative force, so that contemporary critical discussion of intersectionality ultimately congeals around powerblind strategies deployed in the past to reinforce white women’s symbolic domination of feminist studies.”
Tomlinson includes Google Scholar citation metrics for many examples she presents, persuasively showing the reader that this white feminist version of intersectionality is dominant within women’s studies. For example, she notes that Leslie McCall’s article, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” is “one of the most widely cited feminist critiques of intersectionality (with nearly 4,500 citations in Google Scholar as of May 10, 2018),” but points out that McCall erases the racial specificity that is central to intersectionality’s original intervention. Likewise, the 2,000 citations and 870+ reprints of “Doing Difference” by Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker perpetuate out-ofcontext white feminist misreadings of Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought as essentialist. If we take the numbers in Undermining Intersectionality seriously, the intersectionality most people know bears little resemblance to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective. As a result of the epistemic machine, this next generation of graduate students is not only being trained to attack women of color ’s intellectual labor, but also to treat it as a flawed thing of the past.
Undermining Intersectionality begs readers to see that critical debates and discourses are not solely ideological; they are also material. Black women working in women’s studies contexts must participate in the neoliberal corporatized university and play by its rules to make a living. Scholarly citations have implications for tenure, the credibility of intersectional work by and about women of color, and effecting social justice. Tomlinson concludes by insisting that feminists turn off the epistemic machine, listing thirty comprehensive strategies for responsible scholarship and reading practices, such as not undermining the claims made by intersectional scholars of color in order to rescue the concept or elevate a new view, not misconstruing the nature of metaphor, not assuming white women are the normative subjects of feminism, and choosing to work in collaboration with scholars of color.M
If Black Feminism Reimagined implores readers to let go, Undermining Intersectionality fastens the reins and redirects the ship.
Chelsea M. E. Johnson, PhD, is the co-author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, a children’s book that offers intersectional feminist theory to people of all ages.